Ethical Reasoning

Ethical reasoning pertains to the rights and wrongs of human conduct. Each person has standards that are defined by their personal values which come into play when the person faces certain dilemmas or decisions. Commonly, ethical differences occur as a result of individual interpretation of a subject or event, or may be political or religious in nature. To explore this concept, consider the following ethical reasoning definition.

Definition of Ethical


  1. Pertaining to right and wrong in conduct.
  2. Of or relating to moral principles.
  3. Conforming to accepted standards of conduct.


1400-1450 Late Middle English ethic + al

What is Ethical Reasoning

Most human behavior has consequences for the welfare of others, even for society as a whole. Individuals are able to act in such as way as to enhance or decrease the quality of the lives of others, and generally know the difference between helping and harming.

Ethical reasoning holds two roles in life:

  • Highlighting acts that enhance the well-being of other people.
  • Highlighting acts that harm the well-being of other people.

When an act enhances the well-being of others, it is worthy of praise from others, when an act harms or decreases the well-being of others, it is worthy of criticism. For many people, the desire to receive these responses from others guides the development of their personal set of ethical standards.

Ethical Reasoning and Individual Rights

In civilized societies, people have individual rights, but it is vital that these rights coincide with the collective rights of society as a whole. A person being denied personal rights due to the greater good of society may feel the decision conflicts with his own ethical reasoning. While some people believe that a person’s individual rights should be preserved regardless of the benefit or harm to society, others deem it more important that the common good and justice be considered in a civilized society. These opposing beliefs are a result of individual ethical reasoning.

Ethical Reasoning and the Law

The government creates and enforces laws in order to protect the citizens and the unity of society. These laws carry punishments those who violate them in the form of fines, community service, probation, and imprisonment.

Each individual develops his own core values and ethical reasoning according to his view of integrity and honesty, and ability to look past the self-justification and self-deception common to all people. Acts that have been deemed illegal may not coincide with an individual’s personal ethical beliefs, and vice versa. Laws are often created out of widespread social convention, whether they are seen to be fair and ethical by all or not. Some people strongly believe that certain acts are unethical, and should therefore be made illegal. Others find certain laws to be unethical according to their own reasoning, and feel they are a hindrance to their personal human rights.

For example, Bob believes that the death penalty is unethical and that is violates human rights. In the jurisdiction in which he resides, however, the death penalty is a punishment occasionally handed down by the judicial system. While Bob does not believe that the death penalty is ethical, the law was made on the belief that it is necessary for the greater good of society.

Ethical Decisions in the Legal System

On occasion, those who work in law enforcement and the legal system find that the ethical decisions they are required to make on a subject conflicts with the law. This may occur, for example, when a judge finds that the resolution of a case, as dictated by law, conflicts with his personal ethical reasoning. In such a case, the judge must follow the laws of the jurisdiction, even if it seems to create a moral dilemma for him personally.

Institutional Ethics

In some instances, individual entities can punish or take corrective actions against a person who has breached the company’s ethical code. For example, an accounting firm hires new employees, who are required to read and sign the employee handbook. This handbook states that employees must not let their personal bias interfere in any business transactions.

Allowing personal bias or opinion to dictate how a business transaction is done is not necessarily against any law set forth by the government, but it may result in the employee’s termination as it violates the company’s policy and institutional ethics. In serious cases, the employer may be able to recover damages through a civil lawsuit for such a violation.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Jurisdiction – A territory in which the court has the right, power, and authority to administer justice by hearing and resolve conflicts.
  • Social Convention – A set of generally accepted standards for social interaction, often seen as customary behavior and ethics in a society.